Mayor, Council ‘Acted Properly’, ‘Broke No Rules’ – Ontario’s Ombudsman, Paul Dubé
No Call for ‘Provincial Municipal Audit’ on Town’s Finances – Ontario’s Municipal Affairs Minister, Bill Mauro
“I am very pleased with this (Ontario mbudsman’s) report. … Our community has been through an emotional rollercoaster and hopefully this closes the loop on all of those accusations.” – Dave Augustyn, Mayor of the Town of Pelham in Niagara, Ontario
A News Commentary by Niagara At Large reporter and publisher Doug Draper
Posted May 8th, 2018 on Niagara At Large
Niagara, Ontario – An “emotional rollercoaster” is certainly one way of describing the past 14 months since accusations of financial malfeasance began flying at Town of Pelham’s mayor and council from characters who, if not Dave Augustyn’s political enemies, are certainly not his friend.
There are other words, far less tasteful than emotional rollercoaster, to describe the enormous amount of public money and money that has been peed away chasing down accusations, however aimed at the mayor and his council, but in an effort to rise above the lack of civility that was so often displayed by the accusers, I will try to refrain from using them here.
Fourteen months have passed since the accusations were unleashed with a motion tabled at a Niagara Region council meeting by Port Colborne regional councillor and corporate services committee chair David Barrick – a motion that was as long-winded as it was bloated with whereas’s aimed at painting the town’s finances as the “train wreck” Barrick would later come right out and claim they were.
As the months since Barrick’s March 2017 opening volley rolled on, the tangled web of accusations thickened to include complaints that Augustyn and his council had wrongly gone into closed session, then later held another meeting amongst themselves at a local restaurant, to discuss Pelham’s finances and apparently some related personal matters.
At a regional council meeting earlier this year, a gallery full of Pelham residents, most or all of them members of a group they call D.E.B.T. (short for “Dave. Enough. Borrowing. Taxes”), supported by Barrick and others, including Tony Quirk, Grimsby’s regional councillor and chair of the Region’s audit committee, insisted that they were mostly done trying to meet with the mayor and town about all of this, and wanted the province’s Ombudsman and Ministry of Municipal Affairs to step in.
Well, one or more individuals or groups (we can’t confirm who because the names of those who file complaints are kept confidential) approached the Ontario Ombudsman’s Office and Ministry of Municipal Affairs for an investigation and audit of the town’s books, and this spring, in documents tabled at this May 7th Town of Pelham council meeting, they got their answer.
In an 11-page summary of a provincial probe into what the Pelham mayor and his town councillors were doing going into closed session last September 5th, 2017, Ontario’s Ombudsman Paul Dubé ruled that the council followed all the rules the province has set out in the Municipal Act for holding a closed meeting and there was nothing wrongful about it.
Investigators in the Ombudsman’s Office were even able to review an audio tape of the meeting that Dubé thanked the mayor and council to make available to them, so that they knew exactly what was said in that closed session and determine whether or not it was the kind of information that should be discussed behind closed doors.
“I have determined that the discussions on September 5th were properly held in camera,” concluded the Ombudsman in his report, and “I commend the town, once again, for the audio recording of its meeting, as the record was particularly helpful in this case.”
As for the gathering of councillors that took place later at a local restaurant, the Ombudsman came to the same bottom-line conclusion that there was nothing about that gathering, which he said is something councils across the province routinely do, not to discuss business, but simply to socialize and get to know one another a little better, that violated any rules of municipal governance.
Then there was the call to the province’s Ministry of Municipal Affairs to do an audit of the town’s books, even after the town paid for accountants from KPMG Inc., a major corporate finance group on the continent, to comb through Pelham’s books last year, then come out at a highly attended public meeting, to highlight the figures and conclude that they found nothing significantly wrong.
In a letter to the Town of Pelham, stamped this past April 26th, and tabled at this past Tuesday, May 7th’s meeting of the town council, Ontario Municipal Affairs Minister Bill Mauro said – “The Ministry will not be proceeding with a provincial municipal audit. … I encourage both the Town of Pelham and the Niagara Regional Council to work together to address these issues locally.”
I don’t mind saying that I am also pleased for Pelham’s mayor and council that they have been cleared, once again, of any wrongdoing around the blizzard of insults and accusations they have endured over the past four months, good luck with the ‘working together’ part.
Just as there continue to be at least some regional councillors, sitting on the Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority’s (NPCA) board of directors, who continue to believe they won some sort of victory in their lawsuit and their claims against Niagara citizen Ed Smith that he wilfully circulated misinformation about the NCPA and its former CAO – even though their lawsuit was dismissed by an Ontario court judge who went further and awarded Smith costs – there will be at least some on the regional council and in the community who won’t take Ombudsman’s or Municipal Affairs Minister’s responses to their complaints as an answer.
Even before this past Tuesday’s Pelham council meeting, at least one regional councillor, Tony Quirk from Grimsby, was quoted in a Niagara daily newspaper saying he thinks it is “disappointing that Minister Mauro chose to ignore the concerns of the citizens of Pelham raised in the petition.”
I don’t believe it matters to Quirk, who also chair’s the Region’s audit committee and sits as a member of the NPCA’s board, and a bunch of others now occupying seats on regional council that there are quite likely (from what I have heard over and over again from people who live in Pelham) far more citizens in the town who may have their beefs with the mayor and council from time to time, but on balance are satisfied with the job they are doing.
And unfortunately, I don’t think it even matters how many hard facts and charts Pelham’s mayor and council circulate in newsletters – charts with figures showing that, compared to other municipalities across Niagara, Pelham’s tax increase and water and wastewater rates remain among the lowest in the region.
Whether it is Augustyn, or Ed Smith or someone like Bill Hodgson, the Lincoln regional councillor who found himself being censured by other Niagara councillors and mayors sitting on the NPCA board, or Niagara area MPP Cindy Forster, or a citizen who dares to make some critical comments in a presentation to regional council, there appears to be something baked in the DNA of a number of the current regional council.
There is something that has them targeting certain others with insults and accusations, relentlessly and for reasons that may have to do with a perception that certain others constitute a threat to them in some way.
So damn any or all rulings, whether they come from an Ontario court judge, the Ombudsman or a Minister of the Crown, dismissing the accusations.
I predict that the flying monkeys will be back on the attack soon and it will go on, over and over again, at least up to this coming October’s municipal elections when, hopefully, the people of Niagara, will we will vote for a significant change in the make-up of the regional council.
Here is a call-out to one and all of us to get engaged and vote this coming October 22nd for a Better Niagara.
To read one of the first news commentary Niagara At Large posted on this 14 month saga, click on – https://niagaraatlarge.com/2017/03/27/town-of-pelhams-financial-affairs-could-hurt-niagara-regions-credit-rating-port-colborne-regional-councillor-warns/
To read a more recent NAL news commentary on the accusations against the Pelham mayor and council being played out, ever again, at the regional government level , again, click on – https://niagaraatlarge.com/2018/02/10/the-flying-monkeys-were-back-this-february-8th-at-niagaras-regional-council/
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